If I took an inventory of my souvenirs as I was leaving the Met on Monday, following the press preview of the new Warhol exhibit, "Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” this is what I would have found: promotional brochures, a piece of paper covered in scribbled notes, four cans of Campbell’s tomato soup, and a hard candy wrapped in gold cellophane. If I took a second inventory when I got back to Morningside Heights, the list would expand to include some nasty blisters I got on the walk home.
More on that later.
First things first: To celebrate the half-century anniversary of Warhol’s first show, guest curator Mark Rosenthal and a team from the Met assembled a massive, multi-gallery exhibit featuring roughly 150 works by 60 artists—about a third by Warhol himself—that ostensibly demonstrate Warhol’s influence and legacy.
That’s not to say the work is didactic. The Met is too good of a museum, I should hope, to waste anyone’s time with anything so obvious. If I want to see bowdlerized Warhol, I can take a picture in Photo Booth and apply the Pop Art filter. Instead, “Fifty Artists, Sixty Years” is a layered examination of five of the major themes present in Warhol’s oeuvre and of how his influence has translated over several decades of art.
“This creates a marvelous kind of dialogue, not just between Warhol and the other artists, but between those artists, the way that Richter speaks to Polke, for example,” said Marla Prather, the Met’s head curator of modern and contemporary art, in her opening remarks on Monday. “There are many, many conversations going on in the gallery.”
In a way, the late great presides over the exhibit personally: a looming diptych, two of Warhol’s self-portraits side-by-side, keeps vigil over the entrance. Nearby wall text makes no reservations about Warhol’s place in art history, declaring, “If a crucial measure of an artist’s importance includes the possibilities he opens for those who follow, then Warhol undoubtedly qualifies as one of the most significant artists of the last fifty years.”
Like a pop-art version of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Warhol makes various cameos throughout the exhibit, his trademark shock of bleached hair and characteristically bold stare arresting you momentarily: This is about me, he seems to say, as if you could forget.
As much as the exhibition is dependent on the work of other artists, the only essential one is Warhol. And this is in a sequence of galleries that include assorted works of Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, and a myriad of others who are prominent enough to inspire their own large museum exhibitions.
Yet Warhol’s voice is so present, so forceful, it can be hard to view the other pieces outside of his shadow.
Take, for instance, one of the most delightful works in the collection, by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. A Neolithic pot, dated to 5000-3000 B.C., sits in a glass box. Painted across its belly, with the typical iconic flourishes, is Coca-Cola. Of course, even outside the context of the show it immediately recalls Warhol, whose commercial themes weren’t limited to Campbell’s.
But is saying that Warhol was the first, or the loudest, artist to engage in this high/low juxtaposition enough to prove his influence? Had there been no Andy Warhol, would any of the hundred other pieces still exist?
Prather spoke to this point later, saying that while, for one, Gerhard Richter has expressed indecision over whether or not Warhol was actually an influence on his work, “I think the vast majority of artists are very pleased [to be in the show].”
And for all my talk about Warhol’s shadow, the quality of the other work very much held its own. The exhibit represented many of the greatest artists of the past century well, and the emotional breadth of the connections was spectacular. There was the hilarious (“Conversations wit de Churen V: As da Art World Might Turn,” the tongue-in-cheek soap opera by Kalup Linzy); the intentionally gaudy (gilded ceramic piece “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons); and even the touching, as with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.).”
“Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.” is a pile of multicolored candy–the placard describes it as “ideal weight 175 pounds”–meant to represent the weight of the artist’s boyfriend at his early,
AIDS-related death. The latter invited each viewer to take a piece.
I pocketed my gold-wrapped selection and said a little prayer.
Like the pop art it focuses on, this show is easily consumed. It lacks challenge. But it also showcases a stupendous collection of contemporary art, and, like pop art, makes for a good time. There’s no way to complain about that, short of snobbery.
The museum has managed to assemble a breathtaking array of some of Warhol’s most iconic works, from Marilyn to his Brillo boxes to his cow wallpaper to the soup cans. Dizzying as this cornucopia is, however, that is not to say it is complete: Most notably absent are Warhol’s later religious themes, such as the Last Supper, and mentions of his long form films are scant, limited only to “Empire.”
However, his work includes other filmography, and his more accessible forms are on full display with screen tests and the homoerotic mock Western “Lonesome Cowboys.” There’s a quip from him as well (“I want a show of my own—called ‘Nothing Special’”) that gives the Metropolitan Museum an excuse to air not only “The Real World” but also an “Osbournes” Christmas special in the interest of art.
Of course, the soup cans make an appearance, and for their part, the Campbell Soup Company is embracing the exhibition with gusto, helping to sponsor a number of talks and education programs that bring in such diverse and famous names as Patti Smith and Andy Cohen. Moreover, the corporation is even issuing a run of limited edition soup cans with uncharacteristically garish labels, meant to mimic Warhol’s fluorescent renderings. Campbell’s board member, Archie Van Buren, also spoke at the preview to introduce the limited edition cans, which will soon be sold at Target. “I think he would have been intrigued and amused by this closing of the circle, for the art and the product it was derived from to ultimately become one,” Van Buren said.
It was, incidentally, Van Buren’s great-grandfather who first discovered the condensed soup method that launched Campbell’s, and on my way out I snagged a goodie bag of four multicolored soup cans. The collection sits on my shelf, waiting for the day when I, poor college student that I am, will be hungry enough to eat them, and afterward carefully save the labels.
But that’s in the (near) future; we were talking about the (near) past. Here’s a story: I was somewhat distractedly gazing at Hans Haacke’s “Helmsboro Country,” an installation of an oversized cigarette carton labeled with the Bill of Rights and cigarettes rolled in the Constitution spilling out, as I milled about in the assorted elect—production assistants wielding boom mikes, pens and pencil skirts, dignified art critics—when I caught a few words spoken by a salty dog, who looked ripe to thumb his nose at the pretensions of the art world.
His bulging belly, contained by red suspender straps, greeted a fellow: “This is a good excuse to get all the crap out of storage.”
I laughed as he disappeared into the throng and stood in front of the ludicrously large cigarettes, thinking about what he said.
Most generously, I suppose, it could be interpreted to mean that Warhol’s influence was so far-reaching that the curators could really grab anything at hand and be in the right with clever arrangement—but I doubt it. The room around me had the potential to be mistaken for a yardsale: Brillo boxes, a medicine cabinet (“Eight Over Eight,” Damien Hirst), vacuum cleaners (“New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10-Gallon Displaced Tripledecker,’ Jeff Koons) all populated the space.
But I believe in Andy Warhol and his brand of consumerism. It’s the sort of secularly religious statement he would have adored, he who worshipped at the temple of Coca-Cola and yet was a devout orthodox Catholic.
What I mean is that I believe in pop art’s ability to expose through overexposure, and I believe in Warhol’s ability to seamlessly mesh business and art. He had a factory, after all, and at least one witticism about business, which, like the rest of his life, delighted in staying casually aloof from crediting art with anything serious or substantial: “After I did that thing called ‘art’ or whatever it’s called I went into business art ... being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” he said.
Warhol had no interest in playing the starving artist, and embraced money: He wanted to hang it on his wall, and so he did, with “Dollar Signs.” If building business was his art, he was among the greatest. Throughout his career, he relentlessly used sensationalism, public image, and syndication to raise visibility in a way that’s echoed today in the actions of contemporary celebrities like Lady Gaga.
In the first gallery, which is devoted to newsprint and other mundanity, the artist Sarah Lucas’s piece “Hunk of the Year” consists only of a newspaper clipping of shirtless pictures from Great Britain’s man candy.The tabloid calls upon readers to help it choose “Mr. Mucho Macho.” The museum provides an accompanying quote from Lucas: “I use sexist attitudes because they are there to be used ... I’m dipping into the culture, pointing a finger: directing attention to what’s there.”
Even in all its willful superficiality, there lurks a darker edge to Warhol’s works. It’s sometimes overt, as in his depictions of America’s Most Wanted or the electric chair, but sometimes troublingly hard to pin down, as in his relentlessly cheerful depictions of everyday household goods and blown-up adverts. Perhaps the tone isn’t Warhol’s at all—perhaps he’s just pointing a finger at what’s there.
Later, I wandered back through the mostly empty exhibit alone and the stillness and space felt so wrong. Andy built an empire to be seen, a world for voyeurs, not just one girl. In the TV room the monitors blared for nobody, and the Osbournes lived for nobody, and in the portrait gallery all I could see were blank eyes staring out of silent canvases. It seemed like a mausoleum. Still, I trekked onward, or backward, to the gallery with the vacuum cleaners and a pharmaceutical cabinet and supersized cigarettes, and it seemed almost too forlorn for words in the absence of admirers. I nearly skipped through the final level, the very first gallery, where the headlines stared me down.
Once I was safely through, I pulled out my notepaper and squeezed in one more word, the last I would (or could) write: “Lonely.”
It’s very unlikely that the exhibit will ever be this lonely again during its run at the museum. People will come in hoards to see it, make pilgrimages from around the world to this massive monument to not only art, but Western history and culture.
A select group of those people, the type who have at least a few thousand to a few million dollars to throw down on art, will become not just admirers but owners as well. In a move that rocked the art world, the Warhol Foundation recently announced it would be selling the vast majority of its collection, over 20,000 pieces of art with Warhol’s name attached. The pieces are due to be parceled off in batches and auctions that start this fall and will stretch over a few months to a few years. All in all, most sources agree that this highbrow liquidation sale should bring the foundation about $100 million.
My editor asked me if I thought the large-scale sale would bring Warhol ownership to the masses. The idea intrigued me until I considered the price tag. True, a few thousand dollars is basically a steal for a Warhol, but it’s not exactly pocket change.
And then a better thought occurred to me: There is no need to bring Warhol ownership to the masses, because he already belongs to the masses. Warhol is the sort of oddity that America both conjures and identifies with, a fatherless immigrant who grew up dirt-poor and liked drawing and other boys and still succeeded.
He got blisters, too. I identify.
“Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” opens to the public Sept. 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Admission is free with CUID.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the exhibition as "Regarding Warhol: Fifty Years, Sixty Artists." The exhibition is in fact "Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years," and the article has been updated accordingly. Spectator regrets the error.